Last month, President Barack Obama announced on Facebook that it’s time to reduce the amount of time kids spend taking tests in public schools and to limit testing to no more than 2 percent of class time.
At best, his announcement may persuade states and local school districts who’ve gone overboard on testing to dial it back. At worst, it may mark the beginning of a retreat from a 20-year-old effort to hold students and schools accountable for meeting rigorous academic standards.
The backlash against excessive testing is certainly warranted. No one wants schools to sacrifice the joy of learning to the tyranny of testing. But there also is a political element at play. The Obama administration’s sudden turn against excessive testing was a valentine for the teachers’ unions and the suburban, middle-class parents who have been the most vocal opponents of standardized testing.
And it makes advocates for low-income and minority students uneasy, because standardized tests reveal which schools are making progress in raising academic achievement for traditionally underserved kids.
The federal Department of Education’s “Testing Action Plan” is only advisory, but it makes us worry. Too often, education policy is beset by pendulum swings that get out of control. The federal advisory invites such a wild swing when it says that “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school.”
There is one assessment that should hold a lot of sway, and that’s the one students must pass to earn a high school diploma. We do not want to go back to the day when kids were handed diplomas even when they could not read, write or follow directions well enough to fill out a job application.
The test should not punish a student, as some may fear, but rather hold a school accountable and guide a student toward proficiency in math, reading and writing — suitable for either a college or vocational program.
A test does not have to be a fill-in-the-bubble enterprise. Our state lets test-averse students use alternatives, such as portfolios of their work, high grades in relevant courses and good scores on precollege tests like the SAT. That’s fine with us. What matters is that schools are accountable and students master skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century.
Schools should not give students high school diplomas; students should earn them, and schools should support their highest aspirations. Educators should be accountable for helping all students, from all backgrounds and with all learning styles.
This is the heart and soul of the ongoing effort to protect and strengthen American public education. It should not be compromised in the worthwhile effort to end unnecessary or redundant testing.